While Indian football enjoyed its ebbs and flows, one thing we have struggled with is fan involvement. While the Kolkata Giants and the North East sides have had the luck of having a passionate fan base most teams while playing in the National Football League/I League days haven’t shared the same luck. The lack of proper marketing and fan engagement programs hurt the growth of football fan culture in the country. When the Goan clubs of Dempo, Salgaocar, Churchill Brothers and Sporting Club de Goa were dominating the league and was putting Goan football on the map, they could only manage an average attendance of around 3,000. With the advent of the ISL, the fans have found new vigour and are flocking the stadiums, following their sides to away games, something that seemed quite the fantasy for Indian football even 10 years ago. To draw a parallel, FC Goa has had an average attendance of almost 16,000 during the 2018/19 season.
As the popularity of the Indian Super League soared, so did the fan engagement programs, leading to the formation of multiple fan clubs, West Block Blues, Manjapadda, Gaur Army, the Juggernauts. We will see the Mariners Base Camp – Ultras of Mohun Bagan make their debut in the league this season and they could be joined by the East Bengal Ultras if East Bengal’s bid to join the ISL is approved. Even the Indian National Side has now got the Blue Pilgrims, and all these seemed like a distant dream a few years back. As we head towards the 2020/21 ISL season, that would be played behind closed doors because of the pandemic, let us rewind and take a look back to 5 matches in the ISL which drew in record crowd.
1. ATK vs Chennaiyin 16, December 2015. Attendance – 68,340
After winning the inaugural ISL season in 2014, ATK finished second in the table 2015 season and went into the two-legged semifinals against Chennaiyin with great confidence. The first leg, held at Marina Arena, Chennaiyin scored 3 goals without a reply and almost guaranteed their place in the 2015 ISL finals. ATK needed all the help they could get and they needed their fans to get behind them and Kolkata didn’t disappoint them. The fans flocked the stadium in anticipation of something special and they almost cheered their side onto a miraculous comeback.
ATK needed to score 3 goals to level the scoreline on aggregate and Dejan Lekic opened the scoring for the home side halfway into the first half. Ian Hume, who was having a special season after having left the Blasters to join the Kolkata side grabbed his 11th goal of the campaign 3 minutes before the 90 and the impossible task didn’t seem so improbable anymore. ATK was up 2-0 and needed 1 more goal to enforce extra time, but Fikru Teferra came back to haunt his former team as his stoppage-time goal for Chennaiyin ensured that ATK’s fairytale comeback wouldn’t be a reality, leaving the 68 thousand odd fans at the Salt Lake Stadium disappointed.